Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Andrew Duxfield, Christopher Marlowe and the Failure to Unify (Ashgate, 2015) & Mathew R. Martin, Tragedy and Trauma in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Ashgate, 2015)

Reviewed by Katherine Heavey

Andrew Duxfield, Christopher Marlowe and the Failure to Unify (Ashgate, 2015). ISBN: 9781472439512, vii + 164 pp., £70.00.

Mathew R. Martin, Tragedy and Trauma in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Ashgate, 2015). ISBN: 9781472431561, vii + 194 pp., £60.00.

[1] These two books on Christopher Marlowe, both published in Ashgate’s series Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama, and comprising case studies of the same six plays (Dido Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine Parts 1 and 2, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris and Doctor Faustus) are further linked by their focus on Marlowe as a playwright whose dramatic works might pose a particular set of problems for traditionally-minded readers or audiences. Duxfield points to the general absence, in Marlowe’s plays, of genuinely good characters, or clear moral messages, and moreover posits that the theme of unity, which he sees as being of central interest to Marlowe, is undermined even as it is represented: the book traces “the ways in which Marlowe’s plays negate unity”, as well as “the way in which they focus on the pursuit or illusion of unity in the process of negating it” (p. 9). Meanwhile, reading the plays psychoanalytically, as “trauma narratives” (p. 1), Martin acknowledges that in their resistance to closure or cohesiveness, works such as Tamburlaine Part 1 and The Massacre at Paris can seem almost aggressively set against conventional tragedy, or even against the conventions of drama itself. However, while they acknowledge the difficulties that Marlowe’s plays may pose, both Duxfield and Martin make a virtue of his drama’s oddities, and argue for greater subtlety in the reading of apparently off-putting elements of the plays.

[2] Arguing that Marlowe’s dramas are preoccupied with the idea of unity in two contradictory ways (his characters often strive for some form of unity, while the playwright exposes the futility of such striving) Duxfield posits that Marlowe handles his theme in this strangely bifurcated way deliberately, to expose truths about his characters, and to reflect Elizabethan England’s anxiety about its own divisions and discords. Duxfield sees Tamburlaine as determined to reduce and impose unity upon the known world through conquest, and similarly to reduce and simplify his own image. However, Tamburlaine, master of self-presentation though he may be, betrays a “reductive misconception” about the possibility of unity. This misconception “bypasses the variety and complexity inherent both in the world and in himself; it is the gap between this world view and the complexity of “reality” which guarantees his failure” (p. 47). Meanwhile, Faustus wants to quash ambiguity and achieve universal and unifying knowledge, but because of his university training, he seems conditioned to seek ambiguity almost in spite of himself, probing Mephistopheles about Hell and refusing to be satisfied with the answers he receives (p. 77). In the Jew of Malta, the audience will find only the “illusory impression of unity” (p. 89), a world where, paradoxically, Malta’s citizens “are united only by their unstinting individualism” (p. 89). In Marlowe’s Malta, the idea of religious unity itself is nothing more than an “expedient fiction” (p. 105), and Duxfield draws brief comparison with the Massacre at Paris, to argue that here again, religion might be a superficial unifier, but is really a means by which characters pursue their own selfish desires. Here, in fact, a show of religious unity becomes a kind of shorthand for savagery and rupture, as the Duke of Guise insists his Catholic forces should all dress alike as they slaughter the Protestants (p. 111).

[3] In a short Afterword, Duxfield acknowledges the certainty of uncertainty in Marlowe’s drama: “Marlowe’s play-worlds are consistently and profoundly ambiguous; we are never given the privilege of unobstructed access to a sense of right and wrong, nor are we allowed the benefit of characters that can be summarily dismissed from or embraced by our sympathy” (p. 147). As Duxfield’s title suggests, this focus on ambiguity and uncertainty means that unity of any kind in Marlowe’s plays begins to seem a futile hope, notwithstanding the determination of some of his most memorable characters (Tamburlaine, Faustus, Barabas) that it does exist, and can be turned to their own ends. For Duxfield, Marlowe’s unity is a mirage, but it is a purposefully created mirage, intended to nuance his characters, speak to his Elizabethan contemporaries, and paradoxically problematise any sense of resolution.

[4] If Duxfield address Marlowe’s plays from the perspective of a failed drive towards unity, for Martin, it is psychoanalytic theory, including the works of Freud and Lacan, which can best explicate the apparent difficulties and contradictions of his drama. He contends that Marlowe’s plays are “trauma narratives”, “narratives of physical and psychological wounding and its consequences” (p. 1), and imbued with a “trauma aesthetic” (p. 4) that differentiates them from more conventional, Aristotelian tragedies. Familiar elements of tragedy such as closure or moral lessons are most often conspicuous by their absence, and a play like Tamburlaine turns aggressively on the usual structure of tragedy, representing a “rupture in the linear history of [the genre]” (p. 58). While Duxfield reads Tamburlaine’s insistent self-fashioning as a futile drive towards unity, Martin reads his single-mindedness psychoanalytically, as a determination to see himself as ‘whole’, to externalize and so exorcise the traumatic rupture that psychoanalysis sees in the subject: “Tamburlaine attempts to elude his constitutive split by presenting himself as the Other, as a man whose being is anterior to his becoming” (p. 50). Such an effort is fated to fail, as Duxfield also argues from his different perspective. However, Tamburlaine’s failure does not lead to clear resolutions, and Martin sees moments of apparent closure (such as Tamburlaine’s marriage to Zenocrate) as undermined and “rendered impossible and unattainable by the desublimating force of the trauma” (p. 54).

[5] In Tamburlaine 2, Martin argues that Oedipal solutions to trauma are exposed as insufficient. The Turks may be committed to “maintaining the power of Oedipal fathers and supporting the reproduction of Oedipal civilization” (p. 66), but the apparently neat closure of the Turkish/Christian truce is undermined almost immediately by Christian betrayal. Tamburlaine, meanwhile, “rejects civilization’s Oedipal logic” (p. 66). As he did in Part 1, he continues to deny the possibility of any traumatic wound to himself. When he is injured, it is through self-imposed violence, cutting his arm to underline his dominance over his sons: as in Part 1, when Tamburlaine turned his violence on others, the externalizing of the wound denies the possibility of the internal wound of castration. Duxfield suggests that here, “[i]n the very act of demonstrating his invincibility he simultaneously reveals his vulnerability” (p. 63), whereas Martin sees Tamburlaine as retaining power in this moment, in which he “self-reflexively asserts his identity as the uncastrated Father” (p. 74). However, Tamburlaine’s insistence on dominance and the refusal of trauma damages the very fabric of the tragic genre, and Martin concludes “Because of his refusal to accept castration, even in death, Tamburlaine is an anti-tragic figure”, one whose obstinacy “shatters the tragic mirror into shards” (p. 83).

[6] Like Tamburlaine, Barabas resists the state’s attempts to impose order, its “Oedipalizing codes” (p. 93) and his rejection of the threat of castration manifests itself as violence towards others, the Jew of Malta’s repeated and repetitive savagery representing its protagonist’s determination to be “the castrating agent not the castrated victim” (p. 97). Like Duxfield, Martin sees the Jew of Malta as a play that draws in the audience, evoking troubling and contradictory reactions to Marlowe’s antagonist and his crimes. In the Massacre at Paris, too, the audience finds itself in an uncomfortable position in relation to the extremes of the staged violence, and Marlowe does not make things easy for his audiences, whether Elizabethan or modern. Martin shows that for Elizabethans watching the play only a few years after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Marlowe “provides no consoling, suturing narrative” (p. 141), and his Protestants are not even allowed to successfully complete their prayers before being murdered (a detail Duxfield also highlights, reading it as the Guise’s attempt “to establish a reductive univocality that will ensure political supremacy” (p. 112) ). Moreover, as Martin notes, an English audience would here witness the brutal massacre of Protestants, before being reminded, via Henri’s references to Elizabeth, of the continuing diplomatic relations between Elizabethan England and Catholic Europe even after the massacre. As such, the play “presses the audience to recognize its ambivalent relation to and even complicity in the historical trauma it dramatizes” (p. 143). Meanwhile, the modern spectator might be frustrated by the apparently haphazard organisation of the drama. However, Martin argues that the play’s oddities (such as the way in which the second half has little or nothing to say about the massacre) are imbued with meaning. Via the play’s silence, the massacre “[f]unctions…as a traumatic black hole in the symbolic order, as the Lacanian real whose gravitational pull bends the characters’ discourse into circles of oblique attraction that leave the massacre unspoken while registering its dark density.”(p. 135) If Tamburlaine fractures an audience’s sense of “tragic frames”, of what tragedy should be, in the Massacre “tragic frames are silently not chosen or, to put it more strongly, actively forgotten in order to privilege an incoherence that refuses to bring trauma into narrative order” (p. 132).This is a play that, Martin argues, works especially well when analysed in the light of trauma theory: such a theoretical framework declines to “privilege the conventionally valorized aesthetic qualities of wholeness and sense over brokenness, silence, and nonsense” (p. 126), and via this open-mindedness, trauma theory finds a new significance in a play that critics are often quick to dismiss.

[7] In the final chapter, on Faustus, Martin explains he has elected to discuss the B-text for similar reasons: in its rejection of what Kuriyama terms “aesthetic integrity”, he contends that this version of Faustus lends itself most readily to a trauma-based reading, with the play handled last in recognition of Martin’s belief that it is Marlowe’s “most powerful trauma narrative” (p. 145). Like Aeneas in Dido Queen of Carthage (discussed in Chapter 1), Martin argues that Faustus is confronted with the call of the Other, here the Protestant God. Like Tamburlaine and Barabas, he is fixated on external wounding as a way to deflect the possibility of the internal wound, and Martin intriguingly demonstrates this by showing how, while Mephistopheles sees Hell as an internal and individually created idea, towards the play’s conclusion Faustus insists on externalising it and characterising it as a space of physical violence, terrifying but also comfortingly tangible and explicable (p. 153). However, there are no easy answers here, and as Martin points out, in making his contract Faustus merely “creates the fantasy of an evil agency operating consequentially in a strictly delimited spatio-temporal field in response to the demands of an other with whom one can negotiate” (p. 153).

[8] Whether they are striving for unity or trying to displace or deny trauma, for Marlowe’s characters things are never as easy as they hope, and as both books demonstrate, via the doomed efforts of his characters to achieve unity, or outrun trauma, Marlowe also raises uncomfortable questions for his audiences. These two books make complex arguments about Marlowe’s dramas, presenting them as works that resist easy answers, and reject simplification, closure or moral lessons. Whether taken as narratives of failure or of trauma, these dramas might make for uncomfortable viewing, but Duxfield and Martin show that they are all the more rewarding and interesting for their difficulties.

Glasgow University, September 2017

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén